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  • A Legend-ary Season

    Remember way back in early October when Bo Pelini was a hot-tempered bum who would never get Nebraska back to any sort of national prominence, and should be fired?

    No?

    Interesting how that selective memory works. Or more appropriately, how winning - even winning ugly in a rather weak conference - cures a lot of things. Yes this is still an inconsistent team prone to stupid penalties, offensive and defensive lapses, sloppy ball handling, and more, but this is also a team that won their division. Yes there are not a lot of NFL-caliber guys on the field, but they have a good chance to win a conference title and a BCS bowl game appearance. Yes, this is a team that is less than 20 points away from being 6-6, but they won 10 games. And yes, Nebraska could lose to Wisconsin by 17, and get beat up by some SEC team, giving the Bo detractors something to harp on until next September.

    Sports fans are fickle. And Nebraska fans - despite that "Greatest Fans in College Football" tag - are no different. Heck, some of them are worse. The expectations for this team are always higher here than they are nationally, even back in the days when NU would be a preseason #1. That is part of the price of being one of the great college football programs.

    Ever since Osborne retired from coaching, I've tried to keep my expectations for each season in check. The 2002, 2004, and 2007 seasons taught me a lot about appreciating where we have been, what we have done, and the consistency needed to maintain it going forward. That's why, for every season since 2002, I've used the following set of expectations. You'll see that there is a list of accomplishments and goals, that gets progressively more difficult, and is therefore not as common. Sure, the ultimate goal is to win a National Championship, but that cannot be the make or break point for a season to be considered successful. So starting from low and working up:
    1. Maintain the sellout streak. For the most part, this has been rather easy, which is why it comes first. It also is an important part of Nebraska's identity, so it must be maintained.
    2. Make a bowl game. For me, this is the bare minimum of acceptance. The bowl streak under Devaney, Osborne, and Solich was a huge accomplishment, and I want the program to go on another lengthy bowl run. If a coach cannot get Nebraska to a bowl, they need to be fired. Period. I'm not going to be pleased with a lot of 6-6, 7-5, or 8-4 seasons, but I can live with one or two a decade.
    3. Win 9 games. The nine win streak (every year but three, going back to 1968) is another key component in Nebraska's identity. It showcases the consistent strength of the program. I know that with 12 game schedules and a bowl game, 9 wins is easier that it used to be, but I will always - ALWAYS - be pleased with a 9 win season. For me, anything, beyond this point (i.e. the next four items) is gravy.
    4. Win the division. Now we're getting into more tangible ground. You can sometimes win 9 games from a weak schedule, but if you're winning the division, you likely are playing some decent football. Plus, it gives you a chance to
    5. Win the conference. Between the conference championship games and the expansion of conferences to 14 teams, this is much harder than it used to be when you only had one or two hurdles en route to a Big 8 title. I hope fans recognize this. Also, please note that the goal is the conference championship, not the Rose Bowl. The title is the big thing, and the Rose is the reward for the accomplishment.
    6. Play for the National Championship. Say what you will about the 2001 team, and how they may not have deserved to play for the title, or how they got whooped in the Rose Bowl, but overall that was a great season (62-36 notwithstanding). After the five championship seasons, I'd wager that most fans would point to some of the teams that fell just short (1983, 1993, etc) as some of their favorites.
    7. Win the National Championship. I loved the mid-90s. You loved the mid-90s. Winning three titles in four years was pretty damn special. So special that we should recognize it for what it was - a near perfect alignment of several pieces that may never be duplicated.


    (You may notice that I did not include certain things like All-Americans, Academic All-Americans, major trophy winners, winning the bowl game, beating a certain team, poll rankings, NFL draft picks, no arrests/scandals, etc. It's not that I don't care about those things, I do. I just will not consider a season successful if NU has three All-Americans, an Outland winner, they win their bowl, and end up in the top 20 - especially if they finish 8-4).

    Why bring this up? Because there is a part of me that knows if Nebraska loses to Wisconsin and/or gets beat in a bowl game that negative voices will be out in force telling you how this program is heading in the wrong direction. Regardless of if NU wins or loses the next two games, I think the 2012 campaign has been a successful season and Nebraska is headed in the right direction. I hope you feel the same way, and can enjoy these next two games.

    So what did we learn?

    Rex Burkhead does a pretty good Willis Reed impersonation. Yet another chapter in The Amazing Legend of Rex Burkhead was written on Friday. With his team trailing a halftime, he arose from the ashes of a shattered season, and put the team on his back (as well as several Iowa defenders) in leading Nebraska to a division clinching win. There was a lot of concern when he went to the sidelines after two memorable runs where it looked like he was going to give the Hawkeye defense a piggyback ride to Des Moines. Turns out, he just needed to adjust his knee brace. Or maybe tuck his Superman cape back into his jersey.

    There is not much traction yet for The Heroes Game, nor the Heroes Trophy. Did you know that the Nebraska-Iowa game is Nebraska's "trophy" game? Unless you stuck around for the final seconds of this game, you wouldn't have known it, because it was rarely - if ever - mentioned during the telecast. Contrast that to one of the other notable Big Ten trophy games, where they talk about and/or show the ax, bucket, pig, or other random trophy item every two minutes. To me, it shows that Nebraska and Iowa screwed up by going conservative (read: boring and forgettable) with their trophy. Part of the draw of some of those other Big Ten rivalry games is seeing the excitement of guys who fought for 60 minutes for the ability to hold a bronze statue of a pig. As for the Heroes Trophy, I think the only reason Nebraska's Andrew Rodriguez picked it up was so he could get some (very limited) face time on SportsCenter. I'm all for keeping Iowa as a trophy game, but I'd like the prize to be something worth playing for.

    Iowa blows. In case you missed it during the ABC telecast, it was somewhat windy in Iowa City on Friday. One of the major themes was the wind - how it blew constantly, gusted, swirled, was cold, etc. - and the various ways it impacted the game. You'd think it was the first time ABC has ever broadcast a game from the midwest in late November.

    Oh, and Iowa the team is not very good either. But we kinda suspected that going in.

    So what don't we know?

    Why do coaches not take the wind in the fourth quarter? We talked about this after the Penn State game, when NU got the ball to start the 3rd and PSU chose to have the wind at their back for the 3rd. That decision wasn't the reason PSU lost, but it didn't help their comeback hopes. At Iowa, a similar scenario happened: Iowa got the ball to start the second half, and NU chose to have the wind at their back for the 3rd quarter. I just cannot understand why a coach would not want the wind at his kicker's back for a potential game tying/winning field goal - especially in a close, low-scoring game with a big, gusty wind being such a factor. Bill O'Brien and Bo Pelini aren't the only coaches to tempt fate, but I'd love to hear a plausible reason for why you would choose to go into the wind at crunch time.

    Can Nebraska beat the same team twice in one season? The million dollar question for the Big Ten Championship game. Off the top of my head, NU has doubled down with an opponent in the same season three times. Each time, they split the games:
    • 1978 Oklahoma. NU's reward for Tom Osborne's milestone win over OU? A rematch in the Orange Bowl, where Barry Switzer and company got the better of T.O.
    • 1999 Texas. NU fumbles away a shot at a perfect season in Austin, but gets sweet revenge to earn the program's most recent conference title.
    • 2010 Washington. A healthy Taylor Martinez helps roll the Huskies on their home turf, but U Dub controls a Husker team that is focused on everything other the Holiday Bowl (such as a perceived snub, Big XII conspiracy theories, losing a second straight conference title game, the impending move to the Big 10, etc.)


    Granted it is a very small sample size, but there are two trends to note: 1) The second game rarely plays out like the first, which could be trouble for NU. However, 2) it is better that this rematch is occurring in a conference championship game than in the bowl.

    How big of an impact will the losses of Justin Jackson and Baker Steinkuhler be? On NU's opening drive, they rolled up a quick 50 yards of offense. Then, center Justin Jackson left the game with an injury. While Mark Pelini did a good job in his place, the drive quickly stalled out, and the offense struggled to move the ball for most of the game. Jackson hasn't been flashy, but he has been an anchor in the middle of the O line (and as good of a pulling center as you'll see).

    As for Steinkuhler, his loss really hurts too. He is an established, veteran force at a position that is lacking depth*. Combine the occasional issues NU has had stopping the run with an upcoming game against a run-first team, and there is a definite cause for concern.

    *As a sidebar to the bigger question, I ask this: Where is the depth on the defensive line? Where is Todd Peat, Jr? Jay Guy? Aaron Curry? Others? I know there have been injuries, and Bo's system does not always lend itself to getting on the field quickly, but it is concerning that an undersized Cam Meredith (by defensive tackle standards, anyway) is the best option to replace Baker. Plus, the return of Chase Rome from his...um...sabbatical has also proven to be huge.

    Where are my Keys?

    At the beginning of the season, I laid out three simple keys for Nebraska to have a strong season: 1) Win the turnover battle, 2) Own 3rd Down, 3) Limit penalties. Throughout the year, I'll be tracking Nebraska's progress:

    Penalties
    Penalty Yds.
    3rd Down Conv. (NU)
    3rd Down Conv. (Opp)
    Turnover Margin
    So. Miss
    2
    30
    80.0%
    50.0%
    1
    UCLA
    7
    60
    9.1%
    45.0%
    -1
    Arkansas St.
    4
    34
    76.9%
    37.5%
    -2
    Idaho St.
    9
    104
    45.5%
    13.3%
    2
    Wisconsin
    6
    70
    38.5%
    26.7%
    -1
    Ohio St.
    9
    75
    35.7%
    45.5%
    -3
    Northwestern
    8
    62
    21.4%
    25.0%
    -3
    Michigan
    8
    104
    33.3%
    33.3%
    1
    Michigan St.
    9
    72
    42.9%
    40.0%
    -1
    Penn St.
    7
    55
    50.0%
    40.0%
    1
    Minnesota
    5
    47
    21.4%
    7.7%
    0
    Iowa
    2
    25
    28.6%
    33.3%
    0
    2012 Per Game
    6.3
    61.5
    43.1%
    33.1%
    -8
    2011 Per Game
    7.2
    57.3
    42.3%
    40.2%
    -1


    For this team, being even in turnovers is the same as other teams being +2; it is a notable advantage. Add in a season low for penalties and yards, and you can win on the road.

    5 Players I Loved
    1. Eric Martin. An absolute beast wrecking havoc all day long. His motor, fire, and disruption skills have been sorely lacking at the defensive end position for a long, long time. Too bad he doesn't have another year of eligibility, as I think he's just scratching the surface of his potential.
    2. Daimion Stafford. The change is subtle, but you can see him evolving from a guy trying to make highlight reel hits to a defender who knows routes and puts himself in position to make plays. And I love it. Because while the hit against Tennessee Chattanooga was impressive, I'll take an interception any day.
    3. Alonzo Whaley. A big day for Alonzo. A team leading 11 tackles, and an impressive interception that helped ice the game. Good for him for sticking with it throughout the years, and this season when other guys were taking his playing time.
    4. Brett Maher. Maher made some big kicks on Friday - two field goals, including a 52 yarder, and several big punts that helped Nebraska maintain a field position advantage, and keep the pressure on Iowa. I'm guessing there are less than five people reading this who could do that - without a bitterly cold swirling 30 mph wind.
    5. Ben Cotton. You could tell Cotton was playing in his home state on Friday, as he seemed more fired up than usual after his three receptions. He did a great job of stretching the field (as much as the weather would allow) and being a sure-handed target for Martinez.


    Honorable Mention: Rex Burkhead, Brayon Heard, Taylor Martinez, Going for it on 4th down

    5 Areas for Improvement
    1. Punt returns. Still a major weakness on this team, resulting in poor field position and turnovers. Normally, you could chalk some of it up to the weather, except what we're seeing has been happening for weeks. I love seeing Jamal Turner back there, now just get the kid some blocking so he can use his open field running ability.
    2. Kickoff returns. Teams have figured out that the best kickoff strategy against NU is to kick a ball that lands at the 5. A Nebraska returner will catch it and will be tackled short of the 25, creating a field position win (as well as an opportunity for an NU fumble). If I'm Special Teams Coordinator Ross Els, I'm telling my guys to not field any kickoff that lands inside the 10 yard line, and take a knee on anything in the end zone. Until NU can consistently get a kick return past the 25 (or even the 20) there is no reason to lose field position.
    3. Ameer Abdullah. I've been a huge Abdullah advocate all year, so it pains me to see him here, but he had a rough outing in Iowa City. He didn't appear to be his explosive, tough running self, and the muffed punt didn't add to his day. Hopefully it was a one game blip, and not a sign of wear and tear from being the #1 guy all year.
    4. Andy Janovich. As much as putting Abdullah on this list hurts, adding my fellow Gretna Dragon Janovich hurts more - especially when he had a pretty damn good day as a lead blocker. But let's face it, he was involved in one of the fumbles and dropped a catchable ball from Martinez on a 3rd and 3. A side note to Tim Beck: what's a fullback gotta do to get a carry nowadays?
    5. Hyphenated Hawkeyes. I'm pretty sure that Iowa has the most hyphenated names of any D-1 program. Martin-Manley, Trinca-Pasat, Venckus-Cucchiara, Krieger-Coble, Krieger-Kittle, Malcom Jamal Warner, Keisha Knight Pulliam, etc. Throw in some of the other lengthy last names, and the worst job in football might be having to sew all of the letters on the backs of the Iowa jerseys.




    Dave Feit is a freelance writer living in Lincoln. Additional thoughts on the Huskers (and everything else) can be found on his blog (www.feitcanwrite.wordpress.com). Follow him on Twitter at @Feitcanwrite


    Comments 3 Comments
    1. huskernut's Avatar
      huskernut -
      Nice write up Dave. I agree. I don't mind constructive criticism of Pelini; he still hasn't fully proven himself to me, but he is very close. And a 10 win season, especially all in the regular season, is a success no matter how you look at it.
    1. Unregistered's Avatar
      Unregistered -
      funny, i too noticed all the hypenated hawkeyes.
    1. Unregistered's Avatar
      Unregistered -
      Remember when the Huskers never gave up 60+ in games?
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